Despite a frequently cited lack of common knowledge, perfumery is spring-loaded with all sorts of information, often in the form of misinformation and disinformation. Secrets, gossip, anecdotes, lies. The occasionally verifiable account of an event or discussion. Given the historic secrecy of perfumery it’s no surprise that small talk from one era becomes the mythology of the next. There is a sense that we’re unearthing the hidden history of perfume–continually reframing the present in light of the past. Also, we like a good story. (See the frankincense/myrrh meme that’s been rolling around for the past 20 centuries, give or take.)
The good news is that whether a story is true or accurate is irrelevant. The value of campfire stories, which is what perfume lore is, is in the shared experience, the repetition. The narrative is important only in so much as it carries the lesson, the subtext.
The myth. (The meaning.) [Neither of which I endorse.]
Jean Carles created Ma Griffe after he lost his sense of smell. (Multiple meanings: Artistry is mystical and creativity knows no bounds. The magic of perfumery resides in the soul, not the nose. The mirror-meaning is that creativity is actually quite logical and not at all cryptic. For a person trained in the calculation of formulae based on known materials, anosmia is no obstacle.)
Guy Robert’s inspiration for Dioressence was washing raw ambergris off his hands with soap scented with a knock-off of Miss Dior. (A spin on the sacred and the profane. This myth will either mean that inspiration has a zen quality of smacking you on the back of your head to get your attention or that perfume is an uninspired, functional product, not art. This is the black-box story of perfumery. You’ll see in it whatever you’re primed to see.)
Germaine Cellier’s impulse for creating Bandit was sniffing models’ panties at runway shows. (Freud was right. Queer perversion follows a model of stunted psychosexual development. Alternate meaning: Girl-on-girl porn is hot, dude.)
There are countless others. Overdosage and aroma-material stories like Chanel 5 and the bucket of aldehyde. Shalimar=Jicky + a shitload of vanilla. Samsara contained 30% sandalwood. Lancome’s La Vie Est Belle tips the scales at 4% ethylmaltol.
It’s not just the ingredients, either.
Giorgio was banned from restaurants. Michael Jackson wore Bal à Versailles. Roudnitska planted muguet. Private Collection was Estée’s personal perfume. Chanel maintain their own rose and jasmine fields in Shangri la. Napoleon wrote to Josephine, ‘Daddy’s coming home. Don’t bathe!’
These myths have been told so often that their echoes can still be heard if you’re quiet. Perfume PR loves these stories because they’re perfect for the excitement that a little knowledge ignites. Marketing fans the flame and soon the bonfire is blazing and we’re rushing toward it. (Convoluted end to the campfire analogy.)